A portrait of a movement on display in front of the State House 

  • Two of the portraits that Maundy Mitchell produced for her Black Lives Matter project are of Tristan McLane (left) and Taejah Grenier. The portraits will be exhibited at the State House starting Saturday. Maundy Mitchell Photography

  • Photographer Maundy Mitchell will install a display of life-sized portraits of Black Lives Matter protesters in front of the State House that will run from Saturday through Sept. 13. —Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/4/2020 1:40:46 PM

Maundy Mitchell, a professional photographer, hadn’t seen the George Floyd video until a few weeks after the incident.

She missed what most of us had, the cop’s knee pressing harder, harder, harder on Floyd’s neck on Memorial Day, the day he died. But when she saw a Floyd-fueled Black Lives Matter rally in June, right outside her photo studio on the green of the Plymouth Common, she knew.

She had to watch that video. She had to pay attention to the current state of her country, nearing a racial boiling point.

Once she absorbed what she saw, she felt compelled to create something, a project that she could both share and feel.

Her eight-day display of photos – life-sized portraits of protesters, most wearing black and displaying Black Lives Matter placards – starts Saturday and runs through Sept. 13 at the State House. She’ll randomly spread 21 photos, each a little more than 4-by-8 feet, showing expressions that are neither mad, sad, glad, nor hopeful.

More thoughtful, maybe, with a touch of seriousness that tells you they have something on their minds.

“Looking back, I guess I was under-educated about it,” Mitchell said by phone. “I was vaguely aware of several incidents, but I had no idea how prevalent it is, or how prevalent racism is.”

The Floyd video haunted Mitchell. Haunted us all, really, a powerful image released after a long list of other disturbing videos had already shown conflicts between police and unarmed Black people.

This one, though, created irrefutable proof to many that racism was deeply embedded in police departments everywhere. The tipping point had been reached, measured as a huge element in American history, unfolding in real time.

“I realize that it’s not enough to simply declare myself not a racist,” Mitchell said. “I think each of us has to actively do something to reverse the course of racism in this country, and everyone can do something.

“I decided to support the Black Lives Matter movement and I had an idea for this exhibit,” Mitchell continued. “As I watched more protesters I thought, ‘There is so much energy there, so many stories.’ ”

She describes her work as “simple, I suppose. I like to shoot in the studio where I can create beautiful light and focus on the person without the distraction of the rest of the world.”

The world has been – and remains – distracted. Here at home, the racial unrest is the most palpable since the 1960s.

For Mitchell, the BLM rally in June, almost close enough to touch that day, pushed her, jolted her, awakened her, shortly after Floyd’s death had lit the fuse.

She had been reading a biography about Dorothea Lange, whose photos taken during the Great Depression helped document the misery that had gripped the United States in the 1930s. Mitchell was inspired.

Then, again, while Mitchell cleaned and organized her studio, which by then had been closed for three months because of the pandemic, she heard voices outside. She sensed activity.

She looked out the front door and saw a rally, a peaceful demonstration engineered by Black Lives Matter. She invited participants to stop by her studio, have their picture taken, make a statement that will last. She has 21 photos from that shoot, 21 more from another rally in Plymouth.

She knew why the protesters were there, what had pushed them to desperation: the video.

“I decided to watch that video and then I realized how little I knew about racism in the country and what’s going on,” Mitchell said. “I read as much as I could about it, tried to educate myself.”

The protesters outside fueled her motivation for her own display, complete with massive 4-by-8 foot photos mounted on painting plywood.

Her exhibit shows men and women, boys and girls, Blacks and whites, each with those eyes that say nothing and a lot at the same time. Her Protest Portraits have been displayed in galleries, online and at the Plymouth Common.

One shot shows a man in a black hoodie, his right fist skyward, locked at the elbow, deliberately ushering us back the podium from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

There, Tommie Smith, who struck gold in the 200-meter dash, and USA teammate John Carlos, the Bronze Medal winner, raised their fists in a sign of Black power as our National Anthem played.

They were sent home.

But that was more than 50 years ago. Some things have changed, others haven’t. People are still marching. Cops are trying to straddle the line between empathy for Black people and loyalty to the blue.

People are talking. That’s good.

An artistic project with a strong message about race can create pushback, resistance, maybe a little Confederate flag-waving. Mitchell said she heard comments from people driving past while she set up in Plymouth.

“As we were installing the exhibition, someone yelled, ‘All lives matter,’ as though we don’t think they do,” Mitchell told me. “They are either missing the point, or they’re intentionally delegitimizing the movement.”

She said she’s confident the photos won’t be damaged by anyone during their eight-day visit to the State House. If it happens, though, Mitchell says she’ll use it as part of the exhibit, an example of why she brought her photos here in the first place.

“Yeah, it might get vandalized,” Mitchell said, “but that would only reinforce why we all need to do something about this issue now.”


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